Executive Director Reports

A union built to last

Henry Bayer

August-September 2014

I write this, my last column, as I step down as Executive Director after 21 years.

When I became an AFSCME member 39 years ago, Illinois public employees did not yet have full collective bargaining rights. Only a relative handful of local government and university workers were covered by limited collective bargaining agreements that, without a comprehensive bargaining law, were weakly enforced.

Our International Union was leading an effort to enact bargaining laws across the country, which in Illinois led first to an Executive Order for state employees, then a comprehensive law covering hundreds of thousands of public workers.

Those measures were won only after AFSCME members worked their tails off in 1972 to elect an independent-minded governor committed to bargaining rights. They worked equally hard in 1983 to elect a mayor of Chicago willing to buck a political machine whose reach enabled it to block public employee bargaining rights for two decades.

In these battles we stood virtually alone. We had few members and less money, but our brothers and sisters in states where public sector bargaining was thriving understood that organizing the unorganized here would make their own unions stronger.

Thanks to their dollars and the determination of a small band of members, we won the rights we had so long sought and built a powerful union.

AFSCME members play a uniquely active role in the life of our union. Where else do you find rank and file union officers willing to put in countless hours representing, educating and mobilizing their co-workers without compensation? Where else do you find so many members willing to hit the picket line, or hop on a bus to a village hall, county building, or the state capitol?

It is from you that the union derives its strength, a strength constantly tested by powerful forces that want to crush us and undo our gains.

The days ahead won’t be easy, but it wasn’t easy for those who made the dream of collective bargaining a reality. If they, with their meager resources, could unlock the chokehold that conservative Republicans and the Chicago political machine had on public employees, we can beat back attacks from today’s corporate elite.

Council 31 can point many accomplishments since winning bargaining rights in 1983. There’s a reason why we are the flagship Council in the number one union.

We’ve not squabbled a lot internally. Locals where members spend time fighting one another – doing themselves a disservice – are a distinct minority. Our Council has had a unity of purpose since its inception.

We can be proud that we recognized early on that we all suffered from a shrinking labor movement, making a strong organizing program imperative.

We can be proud that we led the fight to improve pension benefits in Illinois – ensuring economic security for retirees –and spearheaded legal and legislative battles to preserve those benefits.

We can be proud that, when challenged by our enemies, we have been willing to invest the resources necessary to do battle. Unlike too many politicians, we’ve not claimed we can do more with less. We know from our own work experience that when we lack resources or staff, services suffer.

We can be proud that when AFSCME members in Illinois have found it necessary to strike, we were able to pay them strike benefits from our Solidarity Fund, including our beleaguered members at Heartland Human Services in Effingham, who never wavered during two years on the picket line.

We can be proud that we have a staff that is second to none in the entire labor movement, a staff that regards their work not simply as a job, but as a calling to empower members and bring justice to the workplace and our communities.

These things started before I became the Director and all of them and more, I am confident, will continue under my successor, Roberta Lynch, whose enormous contributions to the growth and development of the Council cannot be overstated.

I couldn’t be leaving the union in better hands, but Roberta would be the first one to tell you that her hands alone won’t get the job done. It’s going to take the hands of all 100,000 active and retired members clasped together, moving with the same unity and determination which has made Council 31 the great union that it is today.

The most immediate job is to ensure that Bruce Rauner, who thinks collective bargaining is “bribery” and that our wages and benefits are too high, doesn’t become governor. In this effort, my hands will be one pair of what I hope will be all 100,000 of ours.

I am grateful to all of you who have contributed to the greatness of this union of which I am so proud to have been a part. I thank you for your years of support, and hope to see you on the campaign trail in the coming weeks.